My experience at ICRISAT under the RUFORUM Field Attachment Programme Award (FAPA)

By Dr. Koech Oscar Kipchirchir, RUFORUM-ICRISAT postdoc student

The future crop for drylands: Mr. Patrick Sheunda and Mr. Kibuka taking us through the ongoing experiments on one of the multipurpose sorghum varieties

In 2017, I was awarded a Field Attachment Programme Award (FAPA) by RUFORUM to support my field attachment internship at the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Kenya. My research interest was on utilisation of sorghum as a source of food and feed in an integrated production system. The main focus was to demonstrate the advantage of crop-livestock integration in arid and semi-arid environments, by comparing the use of animal manure as fertilizer and the crop residue as animal feed versus conventional fertilizer use. The title of my research is, “Effect of organic and inorganic fertilizer regimes and levels on grain sorghum (Sorghum Bicolor L. Moench) growth, yield and feed quality”.

Being the early years of my career since completing my PhD two years ago, I was looking for an opportunity to be involved in research with a CGIAR programme in order to gain skills in research, grant management and post-graduate supervision in addition to growing my professional network. I picked a master’s student in my faculty who had a tuition scholarship from the University of Nairobi, but lacked funds for research to be my research assistant. Her name was Miss Dorcas Kagwiria. The main aim of this arrangement was for me to be the student’s supervisor so as to improve my supervision skills. She in turn was to help me collect and manage data for my research experiment, with a focus on sorghum agronomy (fertility, pest and disease management) while I focused on sorghum growth and productivity as an animal feed resource.

Having the two of us work together was not easy, since the award had limited funding, and we had at least two objectives each to address.  I had to sit down with my student and agree on what each of us would do. The first step was to develop research objectives for the study, which was not an easy exercise, but we finally developed five objectives and apportioned to each their cut of the cake. The five objectives were:

  1. To investigate the existing farmers’ production practices with respect to sorghum production practices and uses for both food and feed sources
  2. To determine the effects of organic and inorganic fertilizers on the growth, yield and nutritional quality of grain sorghum
  3. To evaluate the influence of organic and inorganic fertilizers on sorghum ratoon growth, yield and forage quality from straws
  4. To determine the effects of curing and hay storage on the quality of forage from sorghums produced from organic and inorganic fertilization regimes
  5. To evaluate the quality of silage produced from sorghum produced from organic and inorganic fertilization regimes

Among the above objectives, the first two will be used to produce a Master of Science thesis in agronomy, and the last two for  two research papers from the fellowship.

The FAPA was also supposed to link me up with a seasoned and renowned researcher from the CGIAR as my mentor. I was lucky to be assigned Dr. Henry Ojulong, a renowned plant breeder with vast experience in dryland crops. Initially i was worried about how I was going to work with a breeder yet my area of interest was on crop residues, but on reading more about my mentor, I discovered that he had extensive experience working on dryland crops and had done a lot of work on sorghum breeding, my crop of interest. This instilled confidence in me and made me look forward to working with him.

Prior to this attachment, I had mostly worked with rangeland grasses, but was looking for an opportunity to work with dryland crops, especially sorghum, following my many field visits and trainings in the arid and semi-arid lands of Kenya. Most pastoralists and agro-pastoralists who farmed in these areas wanted crops that provided feed. My interest in sorghum was further triggered during my PhD research when I was worked on Sudan grass, a member of the sorghum family. Sudan grass had very high biomass yields and proved to be drought tolerant, competing with range grasses. On discovering this, I developed an interest in  studying sorghum varieties as livestock feed. Sorghum is probably the future crop for drylands.

Visit to ICRISAT Field Station: the turning point in my research

My mentor, Dr. Henry Ojulong, was very welcoming and made my life comfortable. Once he understood my research interest, he immediately connected me to the ICRISAT technical team at the Kiboko Research Centre, about 160 km south east of Kenya’s capital city, Nairobi. I thereafter arranged for my first field visit to familiarize myself with the station and plan my activities.  Remember, although I was a post doc fellow and mentee to Dr. Henry Ojulong, I was also a mentor to a post graduate student under the same Field Attachment Programme Award (FAPA). This was a very interesting journey in my career.

Dorcas and I arranged our field visit together, with clear plans on what we were to achieve at the end of the day: 1) identify a research plot for the experiment; 2) make plans to set up the experiment as soon as the long rains of April 2017 came. Our journey landed us at the ICRISAT Field Station in Kiboko on 11th April 2017. We were warmly received by Mr. Patrick Sheunda and Mr. Kibuka who are field officers at the station. We had a chance to discuss our proposal with them and got very good guidance that made us even adjust the choice of sorghum varieties to work with.  Finally, we narrowed down to three our selection of varieties to evaluate: one local variety called Makueni local, one multipurpose variety named Macia and a hybrid variety named Gadam. Immediately after this selection, we proceeded to identify our experimental plot sites and plan for commencement of the study.

Thereafter, we were taken around the station to see the ongoing research work. This visit was the turning point in our thinking. We saw the massive amount of work being done in breeding sorghum, pearl millet, finger millet and pigeon peas, among other crops. Lo and behold, my research dream of creating livestock feed from dryland crops had been answered! I was impressed by the breeders’ efforts to have multipurpose varieties for both human food and animal feed. This was clearly visible from the observed traits such as high biomass yields and crops remaining green for long even after ripening and grain harvest. Sadly, all this research had been going on for long without an animal nutritionist on the research team. I immediately recognized the opportunity for the FAPA to provide the much needed multi-disciplinary approach to breeding efforts at ICRISAT. I also strongly believed from that moment on, that my mentor was the person I needed to help me purse my research interest on sorghum as animal feed. This fellowship had brought together a breeder (Dr. Ojulong), an animal nutritionist (myself) and an agronomist (Dorcas Kagwiria) to contribute to the ongoing breeding efforts in dryland sorghum varieties.

Fitting into the ongoing breeding programmes

Although an animal nutritionist by training, I immediately stepped into the shoes of a breeder during that first field visit at ICRISAT. I joined the plant breeding team and shared my perspective on their past research, even before I commenced on my own FAPA fellowship activity that was the primary reason why I was there. Through engagement with the breeders, I learned of sorghum breeding trials that had already been completed, with 25 varieties of sorghum bred for various purposes including forage and for grain.  When I noticed green stalks lying in the field after grain harvest, I quickly asked to be allowed to collect samples from these varieties for quality analysis as livestock feed, with specific interest in proximate compositions and in sacco digestibility. Mr. Sheunda granted me the permission with a resounding “Yes”, adding that what I was proposing had been one of the important data sets missing from the many breeding experiments done on dryland crops at the station in the past. Further discussion with him also identified this data as a crucial component that could guide future selection and breeding of sorghum varieties and other crops for forage and other purposes.

We immediately made arrangements to collect samples from the 25 varieties for analysis. I was happy to have found a soft landing for achieving my research objectives since the three varieties in our planned experiment were among them. This allowed us to have advance data on the three varieties for comparison with our fertilizer treatments. The samples were collected and are already undergoing lab analysis for feed quality at the University of Nairobi’s Animal Feed Laboratory. The laboratory costs are partially covered by the RUFORUM FAPA.

25 varieties of sorghum under preparation for quality analysis as feed

Exciting field visit with my mentor, Dr. Henry Ojulong

After our experiment was set up and the planting done, my research assistant and I invited my mentor, Dr. Ojulong, to our experimental site on 6th June 2017. This was another learning experience for both me and my mentee. We had a quick meeting with Dr. Ojulong to brief him on progress made so far and what was in plan, after which we proceeded to the experimental site. The plots were doing great. Germination had occurred and the seedlings were undergoing thinning and gapping. Dr. Ojulong explained to us more about the experimental set up and management, highlighting the confounding factors that may affect productivity, like pest control. Being a breeder, most of the experiments in the station were on breeding, but he noted that the visit was a good opportunity for him to also see and discuss an agronomical experiment.

Left to right: Dorcas Kagwiria, Dr. Ojulong, Patrick Sheunda and Dr. Koech discuss at the experimental site of the RUFORUM FAPA supported sorghum trial

The importance of multi-disciplinary research in dryland crops

During field visits with our mentor, we had the opportunity to visit pearl millet and finger millet experiments to select breeding materials. On analysing the experiments, I discovered pearl millet bred for multipurpose uses, including livestock feed, my area of interest. I was perplexed to see high biomass yielding varieties that were multi-stemmed, with numerous productive tillers, fully mature and with filled heads yet still green; signs of good quality animal feed. We selected among the many varieties in the trial and found more than a dozen varieties for multipurpose uses. My spirits were raised. I had found another crop for use as animal feed, pearl millet.  We also did selection of finger millet, breeding for higher yields. This trait was also blended with snapping characteristics for ease of hand harvest by farmers. As an animal nutritionist, the snapping trait was desirable not only for ease of harvest, but also meant ease of animal utilization, with high digestibility and nutrient release to the animal. At this point, I had a third dryland crop identified for animal feed. The research gap was thus to provide feed quality data on the three crops –sorghum, finger millet and pearl millet- to guide future breeding programs of multipurpose varieties.

Snapping finger millet that remains green even after maturity, a multipurpose trait for animal feed

During all these processes, I also underwent training on traits to look for during selection of varieties for further breeding at local and regional level. I learned a lot about pearl millet and finger millet maturity, filling, sterility, height and uniformity, among other characteristics. The application of multipurpose selection criteria like biomass yields, tillering ability, stem size, greenness and height, greatly interested me. I now feel much more conversant with the breeding process in as far as multipurpose or forage varieties are concerned.


Crop residue wasted is food wasted

During the period of my FAPA Fellowship, I came to learn that we grossly underestimate food wastage and losses. When we talk about these two issues we often focus on harvested crops or cooked food, forgetting that if after harvest crop residues are not returned to the food chain, it also constitutes a loss and wastage of energy by farmers. Imagine how much energy we lose from the ecosystem when we harvest sorghum and leave the residues unused. What if after we harvested grain sorghum we used the residues to produce meat to provide the much needed protein supply to our communities? It is high time we recognized crop residues as an important food source. The increasing human and livestock population demands for better ways of efficiently utilizing our crop resources, including residues, even as we explore breeding as a means to solve the challenge of feed scarcity in the drylands. This thinking was triggered by my observation at the ICRISAT station, where crop residue from pigeon peas -a legume with high crude protein potential for high quality animal feed- was left to termites in the field.


Making money from dryland crop residue

This FAPA Fellowship has widened my exposure to dryland crop improvement and utilization practices. I have come to appreciate the role of breeding in increasing animal feed resources and the great potential that exists. Looking at the rampant feed shortages in arid and semi-arid rangelands, I have no doubt that dryland crops bred to solve this problem offer promising solutions. However, my focus will now be on making available crop residues with potential to provide quality animal feeds. I see great opportunities for commercializing crop residues as quality animal feeds, especially with the potential fortification from legume plant residues. There are also opportunities to make feed blocks or range cubes that can be easily stored, transported and utilized during the dry seasons. I look forward to discussing with RUFORUM on support to actualize this thinking. Yes, it is possible for pastoralists living outside farming areas to have access to high quality feed.

High biomass yields from multipurpose sorghum that can be fortified with pigeon peas in a value  addition process to make feed blocks

What I have learned

Through this RUFORUM Field Attachment Programme Award (FAPA), I have come to appreciate the value of a multi-disciplinary approach in dryland crops research to solve the problem of food insecurity. This FAPA Fellowship has opened my mind and ignited more areas for research to support commercialization of dryland crop residues. I have also come to appreciate the role of crop breeding in increasing animal feed resources and see many opportunities for working with breeders in dryland crops for multipurpose variety development. The mentorship I have received from Dr. Ojulong and the ICRISAT field staff has greatly increased my knowledge and expertise in the utilisation of dryland crops as animal feed.

The way forward

This fellowship is for a short period and funding is limited, but at the end of it we are going to achieve much and have already identified other research gaps to be filled in order to provide information to guide future dryland crop breeding programmes. We managed to work on growth, yield and feed quality of sorghum, but believe that more needs to be done on the crop, including feeding trials, value addition and processing of the residues as strategic feed resources for the drylands. There are also other crops and varieties under the ICRISAT breeding programmes that have not been evaluated for feed quality, like finger millet, pearl millet and pigeon peas among others. We hope that these research gaps will be considered during future research support. I and the University of Nairobi are looking forward to more collaboration opportunities with RUFORUM, ICRISAT and other potential partners to support us in helping to addressing these gaps.


I would like to thank RUFORUM for granting me this learning opportunity at ICRISAT. I also thank ICRISAT for accepting to host me, supporting my experiment, and granting me access to their research materials and facilities at the Kiboko Field Station. My sincere gratitude goes to Dr. Henry Ojulong for the great mentorship that has enabled me to look at dryland crop residues as a resource and also given me many ideas for future research.  Lastly, I would like to appreciate Mr. Patrick Sheunda and Mr. Kibuka of ICRISAT Kiboko Station for their continued support and guidance during the period of this fellowship.

Dr. Oscar Koech Kipchirchir was attached to ICRISAT in Nairobi under the RUFORUM Field Attachment Programme Award (FAPA) for his postdoc (RU 2016 FAPA-CRP Dryland Cereals Postdoc 08). He is a Kenyan national and holds a PhD in Drylands Resource Management, MSc degree in Range Management and BSc degree in Range Management all from the University of Nairobi.  He is currently a Lecturer at the University of Nairobi, Department of Land Resource Management and Agricultural Technology, and previously worked as researcher in various projects addressing climate change and adaptation in the rangelands of Kenya.

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